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Vote for AV and kill a solider

The most worrying thing for me about the AV referendum isn’t so much the possibility the nation will vote “No”, and I’ll be long retired before another chance at electoral reform comes along. It’s the thought that the nation collectively decides it wants the kind of personality driving the no2AV campaign. Look at this:

Isn’t this the most desperate, dregs-of-the-barrel advertisement? Here is a bunch of people who most likely¬†think of themselves as proud representatives of a great nation, willing to send troops to fight on foreign fields for freedom and democracy. Their message back home? “Insist on the best form of democracy we can get and, well, I guess our soldiers are just going to have to hope they don’t get shot.”

I’m pretty sure the vast majority of voters would agree that if we think AV is a better voting system, then we can postpone ¬£250m of cuts until the troops are home. The electoral system is a foundation of the country; a small maintenance cost is to be expected once every several decades.

In fact, sod it, let’s postpone billions upon billions of cuts until the economy is back on track, too. The whole “we need to cut now!” message is sounding ever more like a child with poor bladder control than the mature decision of statesmen (statespeople?) capable of thinking in entire business cycles at a time.

AV is a compromise, no-one is ecstatically happy about it, but life is sometimes about slowly working at those small improvements that are simply possible instead of perfect. I think preferential voting is such an improvement: in 2015 it would give millions the ability to cast an honest vote for the first time. If you don’t agree, then by all means vote no.

But for God’s sake, no2AV people, could you at least campaign as if you think the UK is a country capable of achieving things instead of a scared, stupid old bunch of whining tightwads?

Lords steadfast in the face of democracy

Lord Knight is gloating about the Lords’ steadfastness in the face of democracy, as the 40% turnout clause is reinstated in the AV referendum bill. It’s a little bit worrying that the unelected Lords insist that neither the elected House of Commons nor the voting public can be trusted in matters of electoral process. Lord Knight says, “They need to compromise.”

So, everybody, just how little influence in the running of the country do you think voters should settle for?

Are the Lords aware that 40% is a very high turnout figure these days? Most elections (i.e. local, not general) are in the 30s. This country runs on decisions made with less than 40% turnouts, just to repeat my last post.

This AV amendment may be a strong signal to Government, but it is a stronger message still to the public: “Do your duty as a voter if you like, but we probably won’t listen to you.”

As an unelected body, it is no surprise that the Lords are so comfortable with this. The practical upshot is that only in exceptional circumstances would the decision of the voting public be considered more important than that of politicians. This attitude plays its part in the growing indifference of the public to politics. The Lords should be worried by the long term declining trend in electoral turnouts. Instead they are turning it to the politicians’ advantage.

Individual parties are supported by a minority of an ever declining part of the population. Yet the Lords proudly defend this situation by saying, “if you won’t show up, then we won’t even listen to the people who do!”

This isn’t so much democracy as it is a never ending game of Buggins’s Turn. The Lords are simply playing their part in keeping the riff raff out.

Do you vote? Well, your opinion isn’t wanted.

The amendment to the AV referendum requiring a turnout of 40% essentially means that the Lords have just voted to ignore the voters. In years where there is no general election the turnout is highly unlikely to be hit this arbitrary target. Setting an almost impossible bar can even be a self-fulfilling prophecy: informed members of the electorate could reasonably conclude they would be wasting their time. In short, the Lords are telling the willing voter to bugger off and stop bothering their betters.

A few facts may be in order. I do concede I’ve made an assumption that turnout for local elections is a reasonable measure. I think that’s fair. It does not dismiss or belittle electoral mechanics to describe them as a worthy but exceedingly dull aspect of governing a nation. I am interested; I wouldn’t bring it up on an average weekend. Getting two thirds of the turnout of a general election would be a great result – and yet that’s only 2% above the Lords suggested threshold for listening to the public. It’s been a while since we’ve had that kind of turnout. From 1973 – 99, the average turnout in local elections was 41.7%:

More recently, and in line with the declining trend in turnout, since 1998 there has only been one year where turnout barely reached 40% (not including ’01 and ’05 which also had parliamentary elections):

When there is historical data available, the choice of threshold matters. Even more so when the decision makers can be expected to have a rough feel for the numbers. Local elections are an important part of the constitutional arrangements of the UK. It’s not as if they were discussing obscure parts of setting fishing quotas. If the Lords were genuinely unaware that 40% is a very high threshold that fundamentally changes the nature of the Bill, it’s only more reason to push for reform.

If the amendment was intended to say that the result of any referendum should only be guidance and not binding, then that argument should have been made directly. If the purpose was to genuinely ensure that only strong turnouts result in binding decisions, then the threshold should be an arbitrary figure (or even, perhaps, one chosen quite deliberately to scupper the entire exercise). Somewhere in the low 30s might be appropriate. I would still disagree, because the idea that a low turnout means that the people can’t demand electoral reform is perverse. But at least the amendment have some kind of principle behind it.

In a fit of generosity, I might allow that a principle of caution or prudence is at play. The Bill does not propose anything that amounts to more than a minor tweak to Parliament, however. It is not a huge constitutional change, it is not particularly expensive, and it can be reversed. Excess caution results in stagnation, which is in fact quite a dangerous phenomenon. If the principle is one of prudence, it is being badly applied.

Back in 1979, a similar trick was played, using a different form of 40% threshold in the Scotland devolution referendum. That time, the requirement was that 40% of the electorate had to vote Yes. Turnout was a remarkably high 63.8%, but the result was only a slim majority with 51.6% voting Yes. In other words, “only” 32% or so voted Yes. Enough to win a general election with a stunning majority, start a war or two and plunge the entire country into debt, but not enough to make an incremental improvement to the system of government. The long term outcome? It did nothing but delay the inevitable by twenty years, fostering of a genuine sense of resentment and a deepening of the distrust of Parliament. We can only hope the House decides to get rid of this fundamentally undemocratic and insulting amendment. They did after all chuck out a similar amendment 549 to 31 last November.

Not being of a particularly ideological bent, I tend not to get too exercised by the tribal warfare between the different parties and their members. But one reason I’m firmly in the Lib Dem camp is because it is the only major party that truly believes I should have a say in how the country is governed. Labour and the Tories are quite happy playing their game of Buggins’s Turn to see who gets to play with the country next. AV and a reduction in the number of MPs will not change this much. I find it pretty dispiriting to watch peers of the realm clinging on to a decrepit system without even the spine to make their case honestly.